Well, it happened to Frodo. I missed the Daily News article. My suspicions were aroused when an ABC producer emailed me, a couple of days ago, saying that he was working on a story related to the new Harry Potter book and wanted to know more about the reaction of 19th-century New York to the death of another child-hero of English fiction, Little Nell of Charles Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop. (She’s the one about whom Oscar Wilde said that “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Nell without laughing.”) Now the BBC is saying that Rowling wept while writing (so did Dickens, wrenchingly), though they don’t say whom she killed. Hmm.
About Potter I know nothing. As for 19th-century New York: In his authoritative 1991 biography of Dickens, Peter Ackroyd writes: “It is always said that the crowds gathered on the harbour front of New York and asked the incoming passengers from across the Atlantic, ‘Is Little Nell dead?'” (p. 319). The story also appeared in Edgar Johnson’s biography of Dickens, without any footnote to back it up. The Oxford Reader’s Companion to Charles Dickens calls the story “famous (unconfirmed).”
Unconfirmed doesn’t mean untrue. But when I took a quick look at microfilms of the New York Herald from January to March 1841, when the news would have arrived, I had no luck. It was a very big deal whenever a ship arrived from Europe, and the Herald usually released an “extra” with all the latest news. I skimmed the headlines and top news from England that arrived in these months, and saw no mention of Dickens at all. There were reports of the theatrical doings in London, but nothing about fiction. Most of the news was political, because there was a danger of war with England.
On the other hand, in April 1840, the New York diarist George Templeton
Strong wrote this upon the release of Master Humphrey’s Clock, the frame tale out of which Old Curiosity Shop emerged:
The first number of Boz’s new work has appeared in the shape of a New World Extra, and the author would certainly be flattered to hear the number of voices and the variety of tones — squeak, bellow, and howl — in which the name of his offspring is proclaimed through Wall Street and the parts adjacent.
“He-e-ere’s the New World Extra — get Master Humphrey’s Clock here they are –“
“He-e-ere’s the New World — Dick’s new work”
“Here’s the New World — buy Master Humphrey, sir?”
He creates as great a sensation in the street of Mammon as the arrival of the British Queen with ‘cotton down’ possibly could do.
To translate that last sentence: A new Dickens volume is as exciting to the traders on Wall Street as the arrival by ship of the news that the price of cotton has fallen. I don’t actually know how excited stock brokers get today about a drop in cotton, but I suspect that J. K. Rowling, like Dickens a century and a half ago, surpasses it as a sensation.